Career

How To Know When To Speak Up And When To Stay Silent At Work

By Kathleen Breaux··  12 min read
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How To Know When To Speak Up And When To Stay Silent At Work

At the heart of any successful relationship – be it personal or professional, intimate or merely acquaintances – is effective communication.

From book publishing to Hollywood, my career has allowed me to experience life from coast to coast, and to learn how to navigate industries that are fueled by impactful storytelling and human connection. From processing non-verbal cues to developing an intuitive ability to “read the room,” there are many defining factors that make someone a conduit of excellent communication. However, in both personal and professional life, the most vital component of the art of conversation is being genuinely curious about the world and the people who populate it.

In a culture dulled by constant one-way talking, what if we turned our focus outward instead? We can navigate social situations with ease by practicing the art of being a good conversationalist: knowing how to ask compelling questions, listening more than talking, and being able to make other people feel interested by making them feel interesting. Instead of thinking only of ourselves, let’s adopt a mindset of generosity that leaves other people feeling better about themselves when they walk away from a conversation. 

After all, is there a more impactful, lasting impression to make than that?

Learning from the Communicators Who Shaped Us

Let’s take a moment to think about a person who’s had a significant impact on your life. Really envision and connect with the thought of him or her. What does that person look like? What are their defining physical characteristics? Call to mind the tenor of their voice, the touch of their skin, the scent that floated in the air around them. 

Now, think of the way that person made you feel.

Chances are, this person gave more than they took. Their spoken words were likely in service of you, rather than their own egos or desires. The people who have the most magnanimous impacts on our lives can influence how we behave, not only in our most integral and long-lasting relationships, but also in our day-to-day interactions. 

The people who have the most magnanimous impacts on our lives influence how we behave.

Take it from the media mogul and queen of conversation herself, Oprah: “In your daily encounters, in your kitchen, in your conference room, in your work, in all of your relationships... that is what every person you encounter is looking to know. Do you see me? Do you hear me? And every argument is about that.” This realization about the basic needs of human nature prompted her to make a conscious effort to validate the people around her on a daily basis. 

Save for those few colleagues who become close confidants over time, our relationships at work won’t be as emotionally intimate as the ones that fill the inner circles of our lives, but they should still be authentically personal. No matter the day’s agenda or how stressful a situation is, effective workplace communication begins with seeing our colleagues, not as allies or competitors, but as human beings worthy of respect and care. Perhaps we can allow the generosity of spirit shown to us by the most important people in our lives to inform how we treat others, even in the briefest of interactions. After all, the character that’s called to action in momentous occasions is shaped by the thousands of small moments that came before it.

Becoming a Better Speaker by Being a Better Listener 

Let’s be real, we’ve all met someone who clearly loves the sound of her own voice. (She’s usually the only one who does.) One of the best pieces of professional advice I’ve ever received is to know when to stop talking. When participating in a group meeting or a conference call, ask yourself if what you’re about to say actually adds anything to the conversation. While we should never fear speaking up when we have something of substance to contribute, our words should hold meaning and purpose. If they don’t, they’re just noise.  

In my experience, the most articulate person in the room is often the one who speaks the most infrequently, but always does so intentionally and impeccably. When you open your mouth, you want people to lean in to listen. If you’re the loudest person in the room, they’ll begin to tune you out.  

Let’s try a little experiment. Next time you’re in a staff meeting, take on the role of keen observer. Pay attention to who speaks the most and the least often, then watch how others respond to them. Whose words elicit the more interested reactions, and whose fall flat? Particularly in competitive scenarios, it might be tempting to jump in without hesitation to make sure your voice is heard, but exercising discernment with how purposefully you speak will ensure that your words are actually remembered.

Let Your Speech Lift Others Up, Not Tear Them Down

In any social situation where a community forms, it can often seem that some people engage in gossip as a means of connecting with one another. Some evolutionary psychologists even compare gossiping in humans to the grooming that primates practice as a means of bonding. It might be a natural instinct to try and connect with people this way at work, but shouldn’t we aim to rise above these basic instincts, especially when they could cause harm to someone else’s reputation or self-image? Whether at work or in a social scenario, let’s put the temptations to gossip in check by calling upon a quote that’s commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

A minor caveat to this line of thinking: just because you don’t speak ill of people doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak about them at all. During my career, I’ve had the incredible gift of mentors and peers who lifted me up by inviting me into conversations, or vocalizing what they perceived were my strengths and meaningful contributions. These lessons in mentorship have impelled me to enact the same kind of encouraging generosity with others, a practice that has genuinely been one of the most fulfilling parts of my professional experience. 

The woman of influence taps into her emotional gifts in order to lift others up instead of using them as pawns for her own selfish gain. She makes herself an offering to others – with an open door and an open heart – and people are thereby naturally ingratiated to her, which ultimately serves her and those around her in the long run. 

Avoid Empty Language 

Additionally, when it comes to idle conversation, aim to limit (and eventually eliminate) the use of fillers such as like, you know, and the ever-reliable umm. When we make a habit of thinking before we speak, thereby imbuing our words with intention, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from reliance on empty filler words that just take up space. If an awkward silence occurs and you feel pressure to fill it, a thought-provoking question posed to the group will do more – both for the conversation and the impression you make on others – than trying to fill the space with a half-baked thought you aren’t able to properly articulate.

Don’t Silence Your Emotions, but Do Exercise Discernment

We’re emotional creatures, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing! Our ability to be in touch with our emotions is one of our greatest gifts. It’s what helps us to intuit the needs and desires of others, as well as to measure the temperature of a room and act accordingly. But, we must recognize that our emotional intelligence should be stewarded with prudence. When we allow our communication to be governed by our untempered feelings, we make our emotions a burden to others, but if we recognize our emotional intelligence as a gift, we become more careful about how and with whom we share it. 

In my experience, sharing joyful emotions freely and generously almost always serves to lift the mood of the room in a really good way. I’m not sure when joy became mistaken for naivety, but I’ve always been drawn to people who possess this quality. Likewise, I try not to subdue this virtue in myself, and this has only served me well in both my professional and personal life. Whether it’s excitement over a new project or enthusiastic curiosity about an idea, genuine joy is infectious and disarming. Sharing this emotion allows the people in your orbit to tap into this essential part of their own humanity. So, feel free to laugh, to smile, to get jazzed about things that warrant using the word jazz as a verb. When you feel childlike excitement about something, let your eyes light up with it. I promise, you’ll see this reflected back to you.

The stronger the emotional reaction, the more discernment its expression requires.

On the other hand, before reacting passionately with negative emotions – anger, frustration, sadness – we should ask ourselves: how will this serve the situation at hand? Before sharing that emotion in a professional setting, it’s imperative to question from where it stems. When tears fill your eyes, are they prompted by empathy turned outward or self-focused emotion turned inward? When anger rattles around in your chest, is it caused by injustice observed, or is it simply your pride talking? If expressing the emotion will serve others and the cause for which you’re all working, take the time to collect yourself so that you can communicate with calmness, clarity, and intention. Think of your impassioned emotions as something that manifests in two different realms: the inward and the outward. Our instinctual reactions rooted in passion require extra thought before we share them with others. The stronger the emotional reaction, the more discernment its expression requires.

Handling Conflict with Poise

Being secure in your values is of paramount importance. But, we must remember that the woman who is confident in who she is and what she believes is able to exercise the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – when discussing such issues, especially in a professional setting.

When defending the things we ardently and unequivocally know to be true and good, the instinct to come in hot is understandable, and even justified in many cases. However, the most effective first step to take when engaging with someone whose viewpoints oppose your own is to simply listen. The more you temper that instinct to react emotionally and immediately, the better you’ll be able to express your thoughts in a way that’s articulate and effective. There may come a time in your career that incites your Norma Rae moment, but most workplace conflicts won’t be so dramatic. You’re having a conversation, which means that the immediate goal is to exchange ideas, not rally the troops. 

This doesn’t mean you should make yourself a doormat, nor does it mean bowing down to viewpoints with which you vehemently disagree. Rather, it’s about articulating your ideas logically, instead of emotionally, and handling conflict with maturity. Ultimately, you’ll allow yourself to be a vehicle for peace, and this requires discernment: really evaluate when and how to engage with conflict. 

Debate will naturally take place in a work environment where everyone on the team has distinct expertise and opinions. However, debate doesn’t have to mean discord, and conflict doesn’t have to allow room for chaos. If you find that your efforts aren’t being reciprocated, and especially if you feel that you’re not being treated with dignity, you’re not obligated to stay in the conversation for the sake of politeness. In which case, respectfully disengage and seek out another way to navigate a solution to the issue at hand.

Know Thyself

Always remember: your character informs how you do your job, your job does not define your character. 

When it comes to communication – in and out of the workplace – our words should be formed with intention, imbued with purpose, and act as reflections of our inner dignity. The woman who is assured in who she is, what she values, what she knows (and what she’s yet to learn) is able to extend kindness, clarity, and generosity to those around her. 

Our words should be formed with intention, imbued with purpose, and reflect our inner dignity. 

No matter the economic or professional status, here’s something that’s universal: at the end of the day, our eyes must eventually close. When the meetings adjourn and the parties wind down, we return home to face ourselves.

When your head hits the pillow at night, are you satisfied with how you behaved during the day? If your answer here is affirmative, you know that you’ve chosen correctly. The business of being human guarantees that there will be days when you feel as if you’ve done everything right, but still don’t end up a winner. Don’t listen to these lies. If your words and actions are edifying for yourself and others in your orbit, you have succeeded. 

Closing Thoughts 

Good communication begins with making the people around you feel comfortable, which entails making yourself approachable and making them feel seen and heard. Any conversation – from small talk to impassioned conflict – will yield little to no positive results unless it takes place on a foundation of respect, consideration, and generosity of spirit. This begins with you: be the well of virtue from which others can draw. 

While conversations in the workplace may often focus on professional, rather than personal topics, they’re still built upon the same common foundation as all successful communication. Whether the person you’re speaking with is a mentee, a peer, or a CEO, they’re still human and therefore share the same essential needs. 

In most cases, kindness begets kindness. Vulnerability begets vulnerability. Try to put yourself in the position of the person sitting across from you. Imagine what they might want from you – presence of self, curiosity of mind, warmth of heart – and embody it. Chances are, you’ll receive it in return. 

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